Skip to page content
Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
Bookmark and Share

Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris

Prepared Remarks
Acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris,
Disability Employment Initiative Grantee National Meeting,
Washington, DC,
March 12, 2013

Good morning everyone and welcome to Washington, DC and the U.S. Department of Labor. Thank you so much Kathy for that generous introduction, but more importantly for your great leadership as Assistant Secretary for Disability Policy. The Disability Employment Initiative is of course a collaborative effort between Kathy's shop and our Employment Training Administration, so let me also recognize Assistant Secretary Jane Oates and her team for their hard work. The Labor Department is one of the federal government's most important resources for people with disabilities, and DEI is taking our support to the next level.

I'm very excited that you're all here — this gathering has been a long time coming — and even more excited to learn about the innovative work you're doing in your communities and the partnerships you're building to bring people with disabilities into the workforce. In just a few short years, DEI is already making a powerful difference in people's lives.

But let's face it — this is a difficult challenge and we have our work cut out for us. The new jobs numbers came out last Friday. And while there was some good news, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is still 12.3 percent. Look at this way: if you're a person with disabilities, you're living through a recession more devastating even than anything the nation as a whole experienced in 2008 and 2009.

But the statistic that really jumps out at me is this one: only 20.7 percent of people with disabilities are participating in the labor force at all. Think about that: 4 out of every 5 individuals with a disability aren't working and aren't looking for work. It's a shocking waste of human capital, one that does violence to our nation's values. It should be a blaring wake-up call for all of us to do more.

There are millions of people with disabilities out there who can work, who want to work, who want nothing more than to enjoy the dignity of participating in the economy and contributing to their community. They don't want to spend their lives on SSI and SSDI. They have no higher aspiration than to wake up every morning, head to a job where they add value, and then take home a paycheck at the end of the week. They don't want to live in the shadows; they want to live in the economic mainstream.

There are three main obstacles to employment for people with disabilities. One of them is plain old-fashioned discrimination. We've come plenty far on that front, though with much further to go. Combatting discrimination is largely the function of other government agencies like the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But we are doing our part — with the proposed regulations from our Office of Federal Contract and Compliance Programs that would for the first time set meaningful goals for employment of people with disabilities by federal contractors.

Health care is another obstacle, one that I'm proud to say is mitigated by implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The old health care system created perverse incentives — many people stayed on SSI and SSDI because it guaranteed them health care coverage. If they entered the job market, there was an excellent chance that the position they'd find would not come with health care benefits. Now, under health care reform, people with disabilities aren't trapped on public assistance — they can look for work knowing that they will have access to affordable health care options.

One great example of a DEI partnership on the federal level is our collaboration with the Social Security Administration. Our requirement that DEI grantees participate in SSA's Ticket to Work program as Employment Networks means that we're better able to improve the coordination of services to public workforce system clients who also receive SSA disability benefits.

DEI sites are having positive experiences with Ticket to Work and report its positive effects on serving customers with disabilities — including more follow-up with customers, and more thoughtful discussions about when to serve customers in-house and when to refer them to more specialized programs like vocational rehabilitation.

DEI sites are implementing new outreach strategies for customers with disabilities, particularly through the dedicated Disability Resource Coordinator, and bringing more Ticket to Work customers into the American Job Center to link them with a wider range of programs. DEI sites also reported having more staff capacity to serve customers with disabilities, both through new hires and through training.

You all are rising to the challenge. In three rounds we've invested $63 million, and you are using those resources to craft effective solutions tailored to your states and communities. Just a few examples: You've got Los Angeles American Job Center staff starting a monthly disability and Ticket to Work conference call to discuss outreach and promising practices resulting in a significant increase in the number of Tickets assigned to the Los Angeles Employment Network. Then there's New York developing local asset development coalitions to help people with disabilities manage and grow their financial assets as they become financially self-sufficient.

And Kansas has expanded state and local business networks that focus on hiring and supporting the employment of people with disabilities. I recently visited with the CEO Council of the National Organization on Disability, and I can tell you there are plenty of private sector employers who get it, who understand what an asset people with disabilities can be to their companies.

DEI is working. Analysis of Workforce Investment Act data show that people with disabilities are served in greater numbers in those states that have received DEI funding. WIA data from Program Year 2011 show that the percentage of exiters with disabilities in DEI states was 6.5%, compared to 4.3% for all states. Looking at DEI pilot sites within DEI states, the percentage of exiters with disabilities was even higher — 7.9%.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama talked about skills acquisition as one of the keys to building an economy that grows from the middle class out and not from the top down. One of the cornerstones of his second-term agenda is to equip our citizens with the education and training they need to secure and succeed in 21st century jobs.

But we can't do that without a robust federal government making smart investments. And that's why so-called sequestration threatens to undermine our progress.

"Sequestration" — it's our Washington version of March Madness. It's not even a term most people outside of Washington know or can relate to — unless you've been on a jury and you're locked away in a room with eight other strangers eating bad food.

But sequestration means that beginning the first of this month, we're seeing automatic, arbitrary across the board cuts throughout the federal government. Future funding for the DEI will be threatened. Across the federal government, persons with disabilities will see programs they rely on — from special education, to the Mental Health Block Grant, to vocational rehabilitation — all scaled back.

This is no way to get our fiscal house in order. The President has offered a balanced deficit reduction plan that asks the wealthy to do their fair share without targeting programs that middle-class families need. It makes absolutely no sense to approach deficit reduction by cutting services to a population experiencing double-digit unemployment (like people with disabilities), instead of asking millionaires and billionaires to pay a little more by closing tax loopholes.

It's just bad policy — bad for people with disabilities, bad for all workers, bad for the businesses that need skilled workers, bad for the whole economy.

Sequestration throws another obstacle in our path, but we must continue to do the best we can with the resources we have. The good news is that the first three rounds of DEI funding are secure, and you can continue to do your innovative work. I want to thank you again. You are meeting head-on one of the nation's most urgent civil rights challenges. But inclusion of people with disabilities in the mainstream of American life is more than a question of fundamental fairness; it's also an economic imperative. Our goal is not just freedom from discrimination — as important as that is — but also freedom to achieve self-sufficiency.

As President Obama put it when he called for more disability hiring in the federal government: "The fight for progress has never been about sympathy — it's about opportunity." Thank you for doing so much to create that opportunity. We are proud to partner with you, and we look forward to doing more together.